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Nobody Cooler

In the new film The Cooler, Maria Bello gets to make movie history. "I deflowered William H. Macy on the screen," said the petite blonde with a laugh. "Lucky me." Bello is referring to the graphic and intense love scenes she shares with the actor, moments that originally earned the quirky romance an NC-17 rating. Writer/director Wayne Kramer eventually won an R rating after a few seconds of film were cut. Or, as Bello bluntly put it, "They trimmed my pubic hair." Asked if removing a few errant follicles seemed petty, she nodded emphatically. "It does seem silly, and I like Wayne's take on it. He doesn't think my pubic hair was the offending thing. He thinks it was the moment before it, where you see my face full-on having an orgasm. And the public in general is very intimidated to see a woman's sexuality on-screen. We rarely see a depiction of a woman's true sexuality on-screen, so it was something new."

The allure of something new was part of what drew Bello to the role of Natalie Belisario, a jaded Vegas cocktail waitress who begins to fall for Macy's Bernie Lootz. Bernie is a "cooler," a man so unlucky he's employed by a casino to spread his bad luck to winning gamblers, thus "cooling" their hot streaks. The film, which also stars Alec Baldwin in a career-revitalizing role as the casino manager, is tough to pigeonhole. By turns shockingly violent and surprisingly tender, it's a dramatic love story with moments of surprising humor. "I think the best way someone described it to me was that it's a dark fairy tale," noted Bello. "In a fairy tale, there's always a love story, but in The Cooler there's something more than that. It's about a journey of fear and despair to a journey of hope." It was a part she knew she had to do the moment she read it. "It's so rare to get a script where all the main characters are so well-written and have such intricate and important journeys, especially the woman's role. So I really had to fight hard for it—I heard they didn't want me in the beginning, so I put myself on tape and went in and really fought for it."

Kramer was amazed by Bello's audition and particularly by her chemistry with Macy. Explained the director, "She's just got this really earthy sexiness about her. She can play the tough girl, or she can be completely vulnerable in the next moment. She's not just a pretty face; she's got real chops. And she's a revelation in this movie because she's not really been given standout roles. But here, she gets things to chew on."

For example, those love scenes, which Bello credited Macy with for helping her get through comfortably. "We met, like, a week before filming, and we went to have coffee, and he looked up at me and said, 'How about those nude scenes?'" she recalled. "We had such a laugh about it. But we both love what we do, and we're really into the acting of it, so we pulled the love scenes apart. we realized that they were important to the arc of the relationship of these characters. All it said on paper was, 'This is the first love scene, they don't know each other. This is the second love scene, they're in love.' So we had to figure out all the intricate stuff along the way, how to make this first love scene uncomfortable. Then the second love scene, what does it look like when two people make love when they're really in love? All that Hollywood bastardization of that is just beautifully lit, two people looking into each other's eyes, kind of this perfect thing, and we thought it was more complicated than that. We thought it encompassed vulnerability and showing yourself, revealing yourself to each other, and a sense of humor. The night before, we were rehearsing in a hotel room, just drinking and laughing about it."

A Reunion of Sorts

Bello and Macy were both cast members of the hit TV show ER at the same time, although they never worked together—indeed she lasted only a year on the show. Bello was grateful to land a starring role on the No. 1 TV series, but she soon found herself feeling trapped by the show's limitations. "My decision to leave ER was never about a career, it was more about my own happiness," she said. "It took me awhile to realize that I'm not the sort of person who can do the same thing day after day. I just get frustrated and depressed. I'm very good at moving around; I'm a bit of a gypsy. And if I'm not feeling creative, like I'm expressing myself, a part of me dies." And she was not scared to leave the safety net of a weekly job. "For me, it was never about being on the number one show," she explained. "I thought when I got on [the series] it would be a creative and fulfilling job for me, and it just wasn't. But it's a personality thing. I'm a very moody, complicated, temperamental person, and it wasn't fulfilling for me."

With her willowy frame and stunning visage, Bello went on to play more than her share of girlfriends and love interests on the big screen. She was the hooker with a heart of gold opposite Mel Gibson's in Payback, and she starred with Greg Kinnear in last year's Auto Focus. Still, she is probably best-known to audiences as the sassy bar owner in Coyote Ugly, a goofy guilty pleasure about beautiful women who learn empowerment through pouring drinks. "I'm so glad I did it," said the actor about that film. "I love that it's this young woman's story and all the main characters were women. But in terms of working on it, it wasn't such a good time for me." Coyote Ugly was probably her biggest hit to date, but that wasn't why she chose the part. "I pick roles because they're something a little more than the girlfriend," she said. "I'm not saying there's not great roles for women, but there aren't many of them." Asked if she purposely seeks out edgier fare like Auto Focus and The Cooler, Bello noted that she isn't opposed to doing a blockbuster action film. "If I love a project, I don't care how much money it is—if it's a $50 million movie or a $2 million movie. If I feel I'll be able to express myself and bring something to it, I want to do it. At the same time, there are some great Hollywood movies, but there's so much competition with the top 20 box office draws to do these great roles for women, and the rest of the roles for women in the big-budget films are the girlfriend. And that's not interesting to me."

Even though Bello plays the love interest in The Cooler, the character is far more complex than the standard girlfriend role. And the actor not only rates Natalie among her favorite characters but also cited The Cooler as her best work experience yet. "By the last shot of the movie, we were driving in the Nevada desert, and we'd been up all night. We were driving down the hill, and there's the whole crew and people were crying and hugging, and there was champagne. We all came together for the right reason, because we love our craft and we love this project. And Bill turns to me and says, 'You know, if no one ever sees this, we had a hell of a time, didn't we?'"

A Big Chip

Bello has learned to weather disappointment in her competitive industry, and she credited her newfound peace of mind largely to giving birth to her first child, in March 2001. "I've changed so much since I had a child," she said. "I've become much more grounded and comfortable in my own skin and accepting of the cards life deals me. I also feel like as soon as I hacked into the idea that my artistic creative life is a process—is an experiment, is a journey, as opposed to, I'm going to get somewhere and then I'll be happy—I just take the steps as they come and really just enjoy what I'm doing, and I'm so much happier. It's not that you shouldn't keep your eye on the end result. More than anything it's about taking things one step at a time."

Bello credited an early acting teacher in New York, Fred Kerrigan, with a meaningful piece of advice. "He talked about how every day of your life, you're chipping away," she recalled. "Every part you did, every line you said, you were just chipping away at a big block. And I feel like that with my whole career; you just have to make little chips on the block." And what would she like to have as the end result of all that work? "I'd like the end result to be the Pieta," she said with a laugh. "I'd like to have that sculpture at the end. Who knows if I will. Maybe I'll just have the arm. That's OK, too." BSW

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